A new documentary to be shown Monday on HBO raises provocative questions about the role of clerical celibacy in the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. It is drawing fire from outraged Catholic bishops who say the film uses a "stacked-deck approach" to "assault" the church's sexual ethos.
Antony Thomas, the filmmaker, said his interest in celibacy was spurred by a desire to go beyond the daily media coverage of the church's abuse scandal.
"Like a lot of people, I was seeing the reports of priest abuse," Thomas said in an interview from his home in England. "But no one was asking the 'why' questions. It seemed to me there was a connection between celibacy and the reports we were seeing, and yet no one was asking, 'Why celibacy? Why practice it? Who benefits from it?' "
The film, "Celibacy," opens with a comparative look at the practice outside the Roman Catholic Church. Interviews with Hindu priests, laymen and Buddhists who slough off worldly desires show how the renunciation of sexual activity is a potent force in many religious traditions.
However, the film's narrator says, abstinence is not specifically mandated for the holy men and women of these traditions. "No other religious denomination imposes these demands on its priesthood. And today, the Catholic Church is in crisis," the narrator intones.
Citing the number of priests and nuns who have left their vocations since the 1960s and the "apparent epidemic of child abuse by the clergy" as evidence of that crisis, the film turns to psychiatrists and sex therapists for an explanation of its roots.
"The drive or the propensity to reproduce is the most powerful biological process that ever existed on this planet. Sexuality, the sex drive, actually has more representations in the brain than even consumption of food," Michael Persinger, a professor of psychology at Canada's Laurentian University, says in the film.
Why, then, would the Catholic Church mandate a policy that denied this drive?
Although the film presents several young Christian men and women ready to give their lives over to God for profoundly spiritual reasons, sexual abstinence as a church-wide policy was primarily "a powerful tool in controlling armies of priests and nuns," the film says.
In an interview, Thomas said he thinks celibacy is the most "beautiful thing. But it's either a gift or a rule. It simply can't be both."
When imposed as a rule, the documentary argues, the practice can destroy lives. The film includes stories of a woman who had two children by a parish priest who left her and the children; a former priest who had himself surgically castrated because he could not control his pedophilia; and men and women who were mistreated in an Irish home for children run by Catholic priests and nuns.
A review by the bishops' Office of Film and Broadcasting says the film fails "to take seriously that following the example of the celibate Christ is a motive for priestly celibacy. Primacy is always given to motives other than spiritual."
Moreover, the film's arguments are "full of unsubstantiated, anecdotal assertions . . . presented in a largely imbalanced way, with fact deferring to mere opinion in many cases," staff critic David DiCerto writes.
Among the details that the film fails to notice, the bishops' review says, are the "wealth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life outside Western Europe and North America, and the secular polls which demonstrate that most priests are happy with their lives."
According to the bishops' review, the biggest error in the film is that it reduces "man to a ball of biological urges." And it neglects the words of Pope Paul VI, who said, "Man, created in God's image and likeness, is not just flesh and blood, the sexual instinct is not all that he has; man also has, and pre-eminently, understanding, choice, freedom."